All three pieces on
this disc are world premieres, part
of the Naxos mission to bring Chinese
and Japanese music to international
prominence. Itís a worthy goal, considering
that half the worldís population isnít
in the western world. All three pieces
are also premiere recordings, although
they have been performed regularly;
no less than Stokowski gave the premiere
of the Hiroshima Symphony.
England underwent the
Blitz, but Japanese cities suffered
firebomb raids from 1942. Since Japanese
houses were made of wood and paper,
civilian casualties arenít measured
by the thousands but by the hundreds
of thousands. The actual impact of the
later atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945
may not have killed as many as in the
fire-bombings, but the long term implications
were horrific. Masao Ohkiís Hiroshima
Symphony was his personal attempt
to come to terms with what it meant.
It is carefully constructed,
as if "boxes within boxes"
can make sense of the chaos. The Prelude
starts with unsettling calm, tense cello
and bass pizzicatos gradually adding
a sense of time ticking away urgently.
Ohki is too subtle to "depict"
the actual impact. Instead, the second
part is a meditation in the lowest registers
of winds and strings, a solo trumpet
adding a sort of cry of anguished disbelief.
He titles it Ghosts Ė it was a procession
of ghosts, referring to the images
of survivors and wounded walking silently
and mindlessly through the flattened
landscape. Suddenly driving strings
introduce the next section, where at
last percussion and brass surge powerfully.
Ohkiís mental picture was of waves of
fire, expressed by rapid chromatic runs
and trills, tremolos and glissandos.
This is also the imagery of wind, and
transformation for in those moments,
Japanese life was changed forever. Another
darkly meditative section develops the
themes in Ghosts, before the
strange and disturbing fifth section,
Rainbow. Ohki quotes a description
of the time, when "All of a sudden
black rain poured over them and then
appeared a beautiful rainbow".
A plaintive solo violin, then a solo
clarinet evoke the unworldly half light.
Ohki isnít depicting the rainbow as
such, but perhaps the survivors inchoate
response to it, which is far more complex.
The seventh section
is Atomic desert: boundless desert
with skulls. Against a background
of "flat-lining" strings,
keening and wailing, the disembodied
sounds of flute, piccolo and clarinet
rise tentatively. Itís a bizarrely abstract
piece, strikingly modern, particularly
when considering how Ohki had been cut
off from western mainstream music for
a good fifteen years. The final movement,
Elegy, draws in themes from the earlier
sections, yet also develops them with
deeper emphasis. As Morihide Katayama
writes in the booklet notes: "the
conflict is unresolved, and whether
the terror is broken down or not depends
on subsequent human conscience".
The composer wasnít to know, in 1953,
that survivors would suffer illnesses
even into subsequent generations, or
that bigger and deadlier bombs would
be developed within years. As we face
a world still fond of sabre-rattling
and leaders who havenít learned, the
message of Hiroshima is, if anything,
even more important. This is a deeply
felt symphony, all the more moving because
of its objectivity and universal qualities.
It should take its place in the repertoire
of music written in response to war
and its devastation. "History repeats
itself for those who donít listen".
It is all the more
fascinating as a human document of Ohkiís
personal development. Like most Chinese
and Japanese composers of his time,
he was far more influenced by Russian,
and French composers than by the Austro-Germanic
style. This isnít the place to analyse
why, save to say that understanding
Russian and French idiom is a key to
understanding East Asian music in this
period. This disc therefore usefully
transposes the Hiroshima Symphony
with Ohkiís earlier Japanese Rhapsody.
This was written in 1938, at the height
of the Japanese war against China. While
itís not military music by any means,
its confident handling of "Russian"
mainstream influences and Japanese traditional
style, seems curiously archaic now.
It is very much a piece of a bygone,
less questioning age. It shows just
how far Ohki travelled, both as musician
and as human being. In later years,
he would return wholeheartedly to his
socialist, pacifist values with subsequent
works such as his Vietnam Symphony.
It is to be hoped that this too will
eventually be recorded and released.
In producing this series,
Naxos is doing far more than bringing
East Asian music into the western consciousness.
It can change the insular way the west
thinks of the rest of the world, and
thus bring about a better appreciation
of the world and its many cultures.